Will light rail change the way University City develops?

Local streets have jammed with back-to-school traffic this week, as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools opened for a new year.

In most parts of the city, the start of UNC Charlotte’s academic year has not been as noticeable. But those of us at UNC Charlotte’s 1,000-acre campus 8 miles northeast of uptown see our own back-to-school jams, as sidewalks once again clog with students.

Enrollment for 2014-15 is projected at 27,000 or more. Combine that with approximately 4,000 faculty and staff, and you have a community of 31,000 sitting at the northeast edge of the city. For context, that’s three times bigger than Lincolnton, twice as big as Albemarle, and nearly as big as Salisbury and Mooresville.

If UNC Charlotte enrollment keeps growing – and it’s expected to hit 35,000 students by 2020 – the university will be a community of almost 40,000 – the size of the city of Hickory. And did I mention, a light rail line is due to open in 2017, connecting the university campus with uptown and South End?

University City plans

Many Charlotteans who don’t come to the university area of the city have little idea of the heft of this part of town. But Darlene Heater certainly does.

Heater is executive director of University City Partners, a nonprofit group akin to Charlotte Center City Partners. Like CCCP, UCP is a Municipal Service District funded with a special property tax in the University City area. (Click here for a map showing the Municipal Service District and the larger University City market area.)

Heater spoke earlier this month at Civic By Design, a monthly planning and urban design forum at Levine Museum of the New South, and some of her statistics might surprise many Charlotteans:

  • If University City were incorporated, its approximately 170,000 residents would make up North Carolina’s sixth largest city – topping Cary, Wilmington and High Point.
  • The University City market area is the second largest employment center in Charlotte, with some 73,000 workers, and regional offices of 23 Fortune 500 companies.
  • It contains 11 million square feet of office space, and 4.8 million square feet of that is LEED certified for energy efficiency and environmentally sensitive design.
  • The Municipal Service District area (roughly the area between UNC Charlotte and University Research Park, between the I-85 Connector and Mallard Creek Church Road) still has about 950 undeveloped acres.

Those 950 undeveloped acres will be especially important as the city’s light rail line heads to UNC Charlotte. The Blue Line Extension is expected to open in 2017, bringing development pressure and – boosters hope – development more attuned to mass transit.

To envision transit-friendly neighborhoods, imagine residences, stores and workplaces clustered near enough so people can walk or bike easily to them, as well as to the transit stops. One of the advantages of a strong mass transit system is to let more households get along with fewer autos. That can boost household income, helping ease an affordable housing problem in Charlotte. (See related article from The Atlantic magazine’s CityLab.com: “7 Charts That Show How Good Mass Transit Can Make a City More Affordable.”)

But creating that transit-friendly development will be challenging in the university area, which grew up during the 20th-century heyday of auto-focused suburbia. The area offers numerous strip centers and big box stores (some vacant), vast surface parking lots, multiple fast-food restaurants and myriad inexpensive, garden-apartment complexes catering to students.

Beyond the university campus, the area’s highway-style thoroughfares, multi-lane intersections and paucity of sidewalks offer few options for walking or bicycling.

As a draft of a new city plan for the area’s new Lynx station areas puts it, with dry understatement: “The University City Boulevard station area street network consists mainly of two major thoroughfares: North Tryon Street and University City Boulevard. The lack of a complementary and well-connected local street network contributes to the congestion along these roadways and discourages use by bicyclists and pedestrians.”

After Heater’s talk, I caught up with her this week to hear more of what’s on her mind for University City and its future. Although Heater has lived in the university area for years in the Highland Creek neighborhood, she came to the job in December from the nonprofit Charlotte Center City Partners, the higher-profile uptown booster group. At CCCP, she worked with both uptown and South End, which has seen a surge in apartment development along the rail line. Indeed, she told Civic by Design, the South End group, concerned that some of the development was not well-designed, brought in “rock-star developers” to get their advice. “They said, ‘We would not build in South End … We do not know what would be built beside us … There’s nothing that sets the bar.’ ”

The scene on the Blue Line Extension corridor through University City (basically north of Tom Hunter Road) ranges from vacant land to typical highway-strip development to 1980s-vintage single-use office parks (and a 1980s hospital campus) to the master-planned University Place, with stores and restaurants overlooking a small lake.

As Heater was being introduced at Civic By Design, architect and planner Tom Low, wondered, “How can we get out in front of development in a way that’s going to make a difference?” In other words, how can the city work to keep University City’s transit corridor from continuing to develop along such a suburban-style model of disconnected developments?

Heater said UCP is working with the city’s planning department to strategize how best to put into effect the 2007 area plan. The city is also creating plans for the transit station areas along North Tryon Street: University City Boulevard, McCullough Drive and JW Clay Boulevard. (The final stop will be on the UNC Charlotte campus.)

The biggest issue for University City, Heater said, will be finding enough champions for the right kind of transit corridor development over time, supporting the light rail line and keeping the area near the university attractive. That’s important for recruiting students and faculty, which makes it important for the whole region, she pointed out.

“We should care about that,” she said.